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5 stars

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Many museums offer documentary films covering the subject matter of the locale and event they memorialize.  The last one I saw was at the Holocaust Museum in a small alcove theater where you could get a respite from the vast tragedy to watch a short, continuously run film (the one I saw was about a particular figure and her trek from liberation to Israel).  At Antietam, a similar re-enactment film runs, explaining the day of battle, narrated by, I am almost certain, James Earl Jones.

At the outset, They Shall Not Be Forgotten, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the British experience in World War I, has the same feel.  It is simple black-and-white footage overlaid with the voices of those who fought the war recounting their experiences.  There are, however, critical and moving differences.

First, about one fourth of the way in, the black-and-white film comes to life in color, as Jackson has painstakingly restored over 100 hours of footage from the Imperial War Museum.  Jackson even employed lip-readers to approximate what was said by the men in the footage, giving the sense of a sound recording.  The effect is as if ghosts were revealed in the restoration.

Second, the memories are culled from 600 hours of interviews of 200 Great War veterans, who remain anonymous and speak of the every day experience rather than their role in the titanic struggle.  There are no names, and no battle or locale is identified.  You follow no particular individual, though you can discern the British voice in all its forms.  As such, you feel the collective experience without the shackles of a linear, fact-driven recitation.

Jackson’s film is also a generational memorial.  These men haven’t been educated in the ways of individualism and introspection and as you hear from them, you can glean a reluctance to speak, a “what is all the fuss?” mien.  This countenance rarely cracks, even as the horrors of the war pile up in their reminiscing.

As with Apollo 11, there is no historian or pundit or wag telling you what it all means.  These are the unvarnished recollections of men who would have been forgotten more quickly were it not for Jackson’s contribution.   A must watch and a cultural treasure.

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One of the few movies I can recommend you see IN the theater.  I didn’t hear a murmur.  Not one popcorn chomp, not one whisper.   We did, however, all scream at the right places.

A  fun, terrifying roller coaster ride meant to be enjoyed communally, Jordan Peele’s second film ain’t deep, but it is accomplished, devastatingly funny and thoroughly engrossing.

I can’t speak much to the plot, as it would just give it away, so I’ll leave it at the following.  The film is spine-tingling, brilliantly scored, and Peele never makes a wrong step.  His ken for arresting and creepy imagery is stunning, the script is clever, and the twists are well-founded and earned.

Afterwards, you will find that it does not hold up to logical scrutiny yet that failure doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to your enjoyment of the picture.

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One of the best of the year, powered by Melissa McCarthy’s misanthropic turn as a struggling biographer in the leanest of times. Unemployed, unpublishable and unliked, McCarthy (playing writer Lee Israel) hits upon a scheme to forge letters from the ranks of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker and soon, her money woes are over. The endeavor also fills an artistic void. She takes pride in her turns of a phrase and bon mots, her work put in the mouths of giants, and she is invigorated. It all goes bad, as it must, but it is eventually to the good.

I can’t say enough about McCarthy. She inhabits the skin of Israel, with a vicious self-protective quality and a reflexive meanness. Yet you invest in her. Her bitter exchanges with her agent and attorney are both hilarious and poignant.

There is good in her, and a hell of a lot of hurt, both of which are unearthed by her chance friendship with an elegant scammer and libertine, Richard E. Grant.  McCarthy and Grant were rightfully nominated for Oscars and it is a joy to watch him match McCarthy’s desire to be left alone with an insistence that they will be friends.  Their hi-jinx and commiseration are the heart of the film.

I was blown away by the fact that this is director Marielle Heller’s first major feature.  It felt like the work of an old hand, steady, confident and mature. The movie skips with ease but pauses for moments of true beauty and consideration.

This is an elegant movie, folding how much people need each other into a very funny, well-told story.

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A technical advance in both sound and movement, and a caustic, first-of-its-kind black comedy, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H was once deemed a masterpiece. Alas, now, it is as culturally atonal and offensive as Gone With the Wind.

The women in the film are nothing but sexual playthings, constantly subject to the predations of Trapper John, Hawkeye and all the rest of the misogynists who inhabit the camp. The nurses are first and foremost flesh to be pawed at, conquests to be made. Add an indelible strain of homophobia, a black character named “Spearchucker” and Trapper John and Hawkeye in Japan yukking it up with racist Charlie Chan imitations, and you end up with the transformation of what used to be an iconic, anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam (Korea just plays the part) film into a vessel for the most retrograde and debilitating of social views, a moral blight as offensive as blackface.

Mind you, I do not come to this conclusion lightly or happily. Before my own reeducation, I would have found this a clever, funny and brash film. The characters possess incredible medical gifts and live in an untenable situation, surrounded by gore and death, and they resort to sophomoric gags and easy sex because that’s what some people under stress do, especially in dark comedies. The old me would view this film as cruelly hilarious. I might have also found the treatment of the women tempered by their corresponding consent, agency and obvious value to the camp.

But that was before I understood the power of patriarchal constructs. My God, at one point, Hawkeye brings a female nurse to a depressed colleague as if she were a comfort girl to a marauding victor. And she is dreamily driven off, her lust was so sated.

The brutal ouster of the pious Frank Burns and the ritual humiliation of Hot Lips Hoolihan aren’t the mere comeuppance of villains. Watch again as she is unbared in the shower. The leering men settle a bet as to whether she is, in fact, a true blond; she writhes, naked, abused, on the shower floor while they hoot and holler and jeer.  Despicable.

God help the campus movie house that accidentally runs this baby.

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Damien Chazelle has directed two gems (Whiplash, La La Land) that could not be more different, and his third picture is every bit as accomplished and even further afield tonally from his prior movies.  On the surface, the film is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Moon landing, but this is not the gripping, white-knuckle paean to American ingenuity that was Apollo 13 or the sweeping, ironic The Right Stuff, both exquisite films in their own right.  Instead, this is the personal story of Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who, after having lost a young daughter to a malignant tumor, forge ahead in the space program, where calamity is a daily feature.  It’s a beautiful, personal picture, seamlessly melding the grit and determination of one family with an overarching, monumental and patriotic (more on that below) achievement.  It is one of the more moving yet subtle films I’ve ever seen.

Two addenda.  First, the omission of Gosling and Foy in the acting categories for the Oscars is, in my view, the filmic version of the Saints-Rams no-call.  Gosling’s driven and emotionally-stunted introvert is meticulous and engrossing, a master class in precision (think Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea).  Foy, as the wife holding it all together, is simply heartbreaking.

Second, this film caught some flack for failing to depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon.  When asked (and never ask an actor anything), Gosling took as stab at an answer, observing that the landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.”

And . . . .kaboom!  The culture dummies – this time on the right – went after the picture, as some sort of anti-American agitprop.  Little Marco Rubio was particularly incensed:  “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

The criticism is moronic.  Films are not required to meet a quota of patriotic content.  Worse, though, the charge is false.  The singular American achievement of the landing is represented by footage of JFK literally crowing over, well, the race to that achievement.  Moreover, there is footage of a French woman who observes, “I always trust an American. I knew they wouldn’t fail.”

As if that idiocy wasn’t enough, the left weighed in to label the film a right wing fetish object with a “misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness” or, gasp!, potentially dangerous for reinforcing the “pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment.”

What a bunch of fucking losers.

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I caught this a few rainy days ago.  There are very few films that deal with contemporary hot button issues well. Most of the time, the inclination of the writer and director is so patently obvious that the art is robbed of plausibility and force.

This movie is an exception.  The issue is subordinate to the human story, and while that story is primarily told from the viewpoint of an anti-death penalty character (Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean) ministering to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), that in no way colors the message, which is admirably equivocal, even, to my mind, shockingly, a hair pro-capital punishment. That is probably just me, given the hackneyed uniformity of most such films, but that the picture provides an emotional and almost ethical argument for the practice is astonishing.

Sarandon is restrained and effective as a woman of faith called to provide spiritual comfort to a man who has committed a monstrous crime, and as that man, Penn exhibits all the bravado, self-pity, cruelty and narcissism of a thug.  Eventually, she learns she is not there to redeem him in any way, and shucks off her self-comforting fantasies that he was just a good boy led astray,  and focuses on simply leading him to confession.

Director Tim Robbins takes meticulous pains to display the brutal toll on the victims’ families and has the balls to juxtapose the execution with an unforgiving flashback of the crime, and unlike what Poncelet has been selling Prejean up until the last moments before he is executed (he is innocent, he was stoned, his accomplice did the killing and raping and things just got out of hand), those flashbacks show him as a vile, entirely in control piece of shit.

Nobody is caricatured. No easy rhetorical gotcha’ lines are delivered.  The employees of the prison, the medical professionals involved in the process, the families, they are treated with rare grace and equanimity.  An example: Sarandon has dinner with her wealthy family, some of whom question her service to Poncelet.  In the wrong hands, they would have been portrayed as the aristocratic, privileged rich, more concerned with their name and espousing small, likely bigoted views.  Robbins, however, shows them as loving and concerned, with questions (“Why spend so much time on this cretin when you could be helping young children not to grow up into becoming this cretin?”) similar to that of the audience.

Similarly, Poncelet is never a beatific victim.  Near the end, he praises Hitler, he spews racist invective, he even makes a sexual come on to Sarandon.  But she works with him, to help him find a dignity within himself through the sole act of the admission of his guilt and contrition.

Great film.